True Romance – The Problems with Modern Hollywood Love Stories

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With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we commonly see Hollywood try to capitalize on the romantic mood of this time of year.  Of all the genres in film-making, the one that seems to have stayed strong year after year is the Romance genre, which benefits from a very specific audience that usually makes up a good percentage of the film-going public; that being people looking for something to watch on a date.  But, what I find interesting about this year is that there has been a significant reduction in the number of romantic movies in theaters.  In fact, this Valentine’s Day has only one wide release that you could consider a traditional romantic movie; the Colin Ferrell-headlined Winter’s Tale, which has to compete in it’s opening weekend with Robocop.  How’s that for date night counter-programming.  The foreseeable future also looks absent for the romantic genre, with not a single wide release film until April 25’s The Other Woman, and that one might be considered more of a slapstick comedy.  I don’t know if this is just a fluke in the schedule, or a sign that the romantic genre has suffered a backlash, due to a recent string of notable failures.  I can see how the latter could be true.  Some truly horrendous movies have come from the genre recently, and I see it as a result of the genre’s current troubles with tone, character development, and just overall lack of definition.
I should state that I have a little bias when it comes to talking about genre pictures like romantic movies.  Romance is a genre that I generally don’t understand and usually try to avoid, not because of themes or content, but because I rarely get any entertainment value out of seeing characters fall in love throughout an entire movie.  I do, however, acknowledge that there are films that do work well in the genre and can be quite uplifting as well.  I just gravitate more towards action oriented genres, although romantic subplots are indeed found in the movies I watch as well.  Some romantic plots in action movies can even more memorable than the ones that come from the romance genre itself.  What I mean to say is that I do like a good love story, it just all depends on the movie.  But, when a movie is clearly boxed in by the genre restraints put on it, I inevitably end up judging a book by it’s cover and in most cases, I’ll probably end up right.  Romantic films, probably more than any other genre, suffers from too little diversification.  There is a specific audience that goes to these types of movies, and the studios make every effort they can to meet those expectations.  But the fact is, there are fewer fresh ideas coming out of this genre and the studios are beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel just so they can have anything that will draw the audience it wants.
I think one of these problems can be attributed to an issue that in fact is affecting all aspects of film-making; and that’s the overabundance of movies.  Now, it might be unusual to think that more movies out there is a bad thing, but it’s an issue that actually is causing a decrease in the quality of films out there overall.  Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ now famous op-ed from last year stressed that the studio system was going to implode on itself because of the out-of-control ways that movies are funded and distributed, and that’s something that the romance genre clearly suffers from.  Originally, there would be one standout romantic film released in every quarter of the year, which would do very well.  But, because of the increased flow of production, we have seen multiple genre movies all released at the same time.  This time of year has typically belonged to the romance genre, with movies like Safe Haven (2012) and Beautiful Creatures (2012) battling it out in the same weekend.  But, what usually has been constructive competition has ended up making it rough road for the romance genre, with very few entries actually gaining a foot hold at the box-office.  And when studios absolutely must have 5 or 6 new genre movies season, it means that less care is going to be given to the choices of stories given the green-light.
This is a trend that has come about more recently in the last few years.  Hollywood of course has had a long history with the genre, dating all the way back to the silent melodramas.  But, when we think about the most beloved romances out there, not all of them could be easily classified by any genre.  Sometimes, the most surprising love stories are the ones that are the most beloved, and the ones that have no suspense whatsoever are the ones we most revile.  Take for instance the classic film The African Queen.  The John Huston-directed movie follows a scruffy, callous boatman (Humphrey Bogart) and a stuck-up missionary widow (Kathrine Hepburn) as they travel through the heart of Africa on a small river boat.  Throughout the film, these polar opposites end up growing closer together and form one of the quirkier and more charming couples in movie history, and it all happens it what is essentially an adventure film.  The reason why this romantic plot works so well is because entertainment is drawn from the friction between the two main characters, which the two stars portray perfectly.  Romances can also work with even the most perfect of couples, as long as the outcome is unexpected.  The reason why Casablanca is held up as one of the greatest romances of all time is because the two lovers don’t end up together in the end.  It’s that parting of ways that we find so romantic because of how much each character longs for the other, and what they have to sacrifice for love.  As Bogart puts it so eloquently in the final scene, “We’ll always have Paris.”
 But what I think has happened to the romance genre is that it has become complacent.  Like I mentioned before, the genre is valuing quantity over quality, and that is leading to more movies that are exactly the same.  The strongest culprit of this would be the dreaded “Wedding” picture.  If the Romantic genre were like a sinking ship, “wedding” movies would be the anchor dragging it to the bottom.  In the last couple years, we have seen movies like Licence to Wed (2007), Made of Honor (2008), Bride Wars (2009), The Proposal (2009), and last year’s The Big Wedding all make it to the big screen and predictably get trashed by critics.  I think this is primarily because this sub-genre is characterized more than any other by it’s own cliches.  Pretty much every movie I mentioned can be summed up with the same story-line.  Girl wants to get married, problems ensue, girl ends up with the guy she really wants, the end.  The less interesting the plot, the less people are going to like it, and this sub-genre has become something of a joke over the last few years because of movies like these.  Bride Wars in particular turned out to be so insultingly bad, and probably the least progressively feminist movie ever, that even fans of the genre had to cry fowl.  It seems like filmmakers feel that just the sight of wedding traditions is entertainment enough, which is entirely the wrong way to look at your audience.  The reason why Bridesmaids (2011) became so popular was because it subverted this despised genre in hilarious ways, and that’s ultimately what people wanted in the end.
But is the genre completely helpless and without quality entertainment.  Not at all.  Usually all it takes is for one inspired idea, or a filmmaker who gives a damn like Nora Ephron or John Hughes, for a romantic film to work.  Last year, we saw two examples of quality movies from the genre, made by people who have already left their mark with these kinds of films before.  One was from Richard Linklater, which was Before Midnight, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.  Midnight is the continuation of a series of movies following the same couple as they reach different stages in their lives, which started with 1995’s Before Sunrise and continued with 2004’s Before Sunset.  These movies are almost universally beloved and respected and it shows that if the people involved are invested enough in what they are making, it can end up being a quality film.
Another movie that actually left a good mark on the genre last year was the film About Time, which illustrated how you could make a charming romance work by injecting a new idea into it.  The movie was written by Richard Curtis, who has become synonymous with the Romance genre over the years with his scripts for beloved movies like Love Actually (2003), Notting Hill (1999) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).  What Curtis did with this film to make it stand out, however, was to include a supernatural element; in this case, time travel.  While not entirely a novel idea, he nevertheless made it work with the film’s themes of awkward romances and regret, which in turn made it a more enriching film overall.
Having a unique voice helps to make a Romantic movie work nowadays, and it certainly is a breath of fresh air when a good one comes along.  The reason why many of the best ones hold up is because they treat their characters with dignity.  One of the biggest mistakes a person can make when writing a love story is to value one character’s worth over the other.  This sometimes gets into the tricky issue of gender politics, which can be a minefield if handled improperly.  Oftentimes, when a person writes a very poor love story, it’s because the male and female characters are played as generic stereotypes.  How believable is it when you see a movie where a girl has a hard time finding an attractive man, even when she has no flaws herself?  Hollywood has a problem with portraying body image correctly in movies, largely because they put glamour before everything else. Would Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) have been better if a fuller figure actress had played the main character, instead of the more petite Renee Zellweger?  I honestly think Hollywood should give something like that a shot.  Also, as a male, I feel like men are underdeveloped in these movies.  Either they are just the object of desire, or a sexist jerk who doesn’t understand the main girl’s feelings, and that’s it.  Sometimes it’s the girl who also gets the short end of the stick in this genre, by being too self involved in their own feelings, thereby being less interesting.  Overall, the best love stories are the ones where the characteristics of both individuals are given enough time to develop, because in the end, love is a two way road.
So, is Hollywood seeing a backlash from a long string of terrible genre picks.  It might be too early to tell.  One thing that I think may have happened is that the genre has evolved into something else that can’t be clearly defined by the genre norms that we’re all familiar with.  For one thing, the rise of Young Adult novel adaptations has changed the way we look at romantic plot-lines in movies.  With films like Twilight bringing romance into the supernatural realm, it’s safe to say that you can make any type of genre flick into a popular romance.  Hell, last year we even got a zombie love story with the movie Warm Bodies.  The reason this trend seems to be happening is because the audiences that would have normally gone to the movies as part of a date night are now seeing movies of all kinds, not just Romantic movies.  In many ways, Hollywood has actually done a fairly good job of making movies that appeal to both genders, like The Hunger Games series.  That seems to be why the traditional romantic movie seems to have disappeared recently.  Oh, it’s still there, only not as prevalent as it once was, and that might be to it’s advantage.  Less competition can help a genre film stand out and maybe even get a boost from a more discerning audience.  There will always be an audience out there that wants a good, old-fashioned love story and this is the perfect time of year to not only indulge in the same old thing, but to also fondly remember the ones that really touched all of our hearts.

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